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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Spectacular start for Sydney Games
Cathy Freeman
Let the Games begin: Freeman lights the flame
Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman has lit the flame to officially open the 27th Olympics during a spectacular ceremony in Sydney.

Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch described it as the "most beautiful opening ceremony of my presidency".

But organisers made light of an embarrassing technical hitch at the climax of the four-hour showpiece.

A whip-cracking horse rider got the ceremony underway, with Australian female sporting legends helping to light the Olympic flame at the ceremony's end.

Sydney says 'G'day' to the world
Four-time gold medalist Dawn Fraser was among those carrying the torch at the end of its 17,000 mile trip around the world, but the final honour fell to Freeman.

The identity of the Olympian chosen to light the flame was a closely-guarded secret - and the organisers kept the suspense going until the very end as a series of former athletes passed the torch around the track, eventually reaching Freeman.

The 400 metres runner was a surprise, but popular, choice for what was meant to be a spectacular display of water and fire.

Things did not go according to plan however as the cauldron failed to make its planned ascent up a mechanical waterfall at the back of the stadium.

Horse riders got the ceremony up and running
Horse riders got the ceremony up and running
After several heart-stopping minutes for organisers, the device finally cranked into life and rose to the occasion.

"It was always designed to stop at that time," artistic director David Atkins revealed. "The stop was supposed to be around 30-40 seconds, and tonight it just took a little longer."

Australian officials - keen to deflect attention away from the ever-present issue of drugs - had been desperate to put on a good show.

The unified team of North and South Korea - one of 199 at the Games - earned a standing ovation from the 110,000 spectators.

Nikki Webster floated above the sea scenes
Nikki Webster, 13, floated above the sea scenes
International Olympic Committee president Samaranch then officially opened the Games with a speech in which he adopted the local vernacular:

"G'Day Sydney," Samaranch said. "G'Day Australia. Yes, the Olympic Games are back Down Under."

Oaths were sworn to keep the Olympics free from drugs and doping, but competitors at these Games seem set to test that pledge to the limit.

The host nation's national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, boomed out around the stadium as the curtain-raising riders gave way to a dance routine designed to evoke visions of the Australian surf.

An aboriginal stilt walker in dramatic pose
An aboriginal stilt walker in dramatic pose
A pageant symbolising a young girl's dream of life beneath the ocean waves brought the dancers out in force in the first Olympic opening ceremony ever to be conducted at night.

Nikki Webster - the 13-year old girl who was chosen to play out the unfolding story - then greeted Aboriginal tribesmen.

They were next on the scene as representatives of the indigenous people of Australia welcomed the world to their nation.

Australia's history was then depicted in dance, with flames and fireworks lighting up the Sydney sky before marching bands took centre stage.

US track star Marion Jones enjoyed the festivities
US track star Marion Jones enjoyed the festivities
More than an hour and half into the proceedings, the parade of nations got underway, with Olympic founders Greece taking their customary place at the front.

Sailor Nikos Kaklamanikis carried the flag at the head of the Greek delegation, paving the way for the lengthy procession.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Matthew Pinsent was the standard-bearer for Great Britain as a smiling Team GB entered the arena.

Matthew Pinsent leads in Team GB
Matthew Pinsent leads in Team GB
The tiny East Timor squad was also greeted heartily and the United States were applauded in by visiting Americans as diverse in their fame as Chelsea Clinton, Bill Gates and Muhammad Ali.

But perhaps not surprisingly, the loudest cheers of the night were reserved for the Australians bringing up the rear at the end of a show lasting way past its scheduled three hours.

Focus will now turn to the real business of winning gold medals, though the 17-day Games has to stay clear of scandal to retain its credibility.

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See also:

24 Jul 00 |  Athletics
An Australian Freeman of London
15 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
Dream symbol for a new Australia
14 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
Sydney witnesses torch arrival
15 Sep 00 |  Sports Talk
A super ceremony?
15 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
Ceremonial hall of shame
14 Sep 00 |  Rowing and Water Sports
Pinsent spurred by World Cup defeat
15 Sep 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Aborigines stage pre-Games protests
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